MARBURY -- Football coach Hayden Stockton laughingly calls Marbury High the “island of misfit toys” when he looks over his group of assistant coaches.
Maybe no one else wants them, but it’s a group that can take the Bulldogs to unprecedented heights.
Stockton is the latest coach to take over a program with championship dreams but a reality that includes just one playoff win over the last 30 years. He will enter the fight better armed than most, taking the field on Friday nights with a pair of former head coaches that were dismissed from successful programs and are now going through a resurrection of sorts at the north Autauga County school.
His offensive coordinator, C.J. Harris, has been praised everywhere he’s been, but was fired at Sidney Lanier in 2015 after leading the Poets to the playoffs -- “I’m the only coach who’s ever been fired for making the playoffs,” Harris jokingly notes -- and left both USA Academy and Valiant Cross Academy without coaching a game.
“When ‘Stock’ called me, it was a no-brainer,” Harris said. “You got me my first job, so I’m coming to work for you. This is probably one of the best coaching staffs I’ve seen since the 2011 group we had over at Prattville. You’ve got guys that have been head coaches, guys that have been coordinators at other places. When you’ve got guys that know how to do it and do things the right way, you don’t have any issues.”
Stockton’s defensive coordinator, Jeff Foshee, was fired at Stanhope Elmore in 2015 after a solid 16-year tenure was quickly forgotten in the wake of grade-fixing allegations. The furor eventually faded but the stigma apparently didn’t as he struggled to find work before winding up at Curry in 2019 and 2020 and Hale County this spring.
“I get to come home, be closer to my kids and my family,” Foshee said. “I think it’s a good opportunity. Marbury is a growing place. I think they’ve got a good situation up here.”
The special teams coordinator, Granison Wagstaff, made a name for himself as an assistant at Dothan and worked under Andrew Zow at Sylacauga but Zow left for Clemson in January and Wagstaff was dismissed from the Aggies in March.
Now, the trio will serve as the top assistants for Stockton, who worked at Prattville under Bill Clark in 2000-04 before going to Clay-Chalkville, then back to the River Region for a couple of years as an offensive coordinator under Foshee at Stanhope Elmore.
Stockton and Harris met as young assistants working on graduate degrees at Alabama State. Stockton’s relationship with Foshee and Wagstaff actually goes back a decade earlier when Stockton was a punter at the University of Alabama, Wagstaff was a linebacker for the Crimson Tide and Foshee was a graduate assistant coach under Gene Stallings.
“I’ve known about Marbury since I was at Prattville,” said Stockton, whose only previous head coaching experience was in 2009-11 at West End High in Walnut Grove. “I heard some people talk about how they had some pretty good talent and had a pretty good couple of years and thought it would be a good opportunity. It’s a diamond in the rough, it’s just waiting to explode. I remember what it was like when we were at that ground floor building Prattville with Bill. Maybe this can be the next one.”
Another coach with Prattville ties held the job in 2019 and 2020, but J.B. Wallace only managed a pair of 6-5 seasons -- complete with a pair of first-round playoff losses -- before moving back to Prattville this spring as the Lions’ new head coach.
“There are some similarities to (what Marbury was running) because J.B. was at Prattville as a linebackers coach when I was there years ago,” Stockton said. “He still remembers part of that system, but me being with Jamie (DuBose at Central-Phenix City) the last couple of years and with Patrick Nix last year, I’ve added some things into it, pace and stuff that goes a little different, a lot more situational stuff to get kids acclimated to things they’re going to see on the field.”
Foshee is another of those assistants who praises the job accomplished by Wallace the last two years at Marbury, saying there is a solid foundation to build on.
“They’ll be some differences,” Foshee said. “Coach Stockton and myself will put our spin on it, doing different things at different times. We want to take it a step further, for sure. I’m not sure what they did last year. J.B. is obviously a good football coach and did some good things. We’ve got to continue those things but build on our own things, too. And I think with the experience we have on the staff, there’s no doubt that helps.”
That experience is one reason Harris has little doubt the Bulldogs will pile up yardage and points on the offensive side of the ball this season.
“My motto is ‘don’t flinch and don’t tap.’” he said. “We’re going to be physical and we’re going to be fast. The biggest thing is putting up as many points as we can put up. We’re going to score points and that’s the mindset I’m building up in these kids. The easiest way to win football games is to score points.
“The biggest thing is attention to detail. This is probably one of the hardest working groups I’ve been around. There’s a reason you make it to the first round (of the playoffs) and don’t go further. Attention to detail is what gets you to the third round. Once you make it to the third round, it’s whoever is the best team that night.”
Over the past 30 seasons, a variety of coaches have steered the Bulldogs into the playoffs, with only Kyle Glover managing a first-round win (in 2007). Steve McCord was the only coach that ever got the program to a point where it could actually contend for a state championship, reaching the Class 1A quarterfinals in 1990 and 1992 before losing to 1A runner-up Autaugaville 14-7 in 1990 and 1A champion Billingsley 23-6 in 1992 after playing the area rival Bears to the wire in a 15-6 loss in the regular season.
Since then, the Bulldogs have posted seven or more wins just five times but the school’s growth from 1A to 2A to 3A to 5A indicates there is a bigger talent pool. The next step is to get the players believing they can contend for a championship.
“I think it comes from the confidence of the coaches,” Stockton said. “Coach Harris was talking about how we’re never going to quit, we’re never going to stop, we’re never going to give in and that’s the mentality they’re going to install in these kids, that we’re going to find ways to take over in the fourth quarter and pull these games out where we haven’t in the past.”